Bridal Shop

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Like many couples, Patricia Ellinger and Antwon Hinkson had trouble agreeing on a name for their unborn child. He liked Marie, she wanted Alyssa.

They argued and discussed for two days until deciding on Alyssa Marie. It seemed like the perfect compromise, Patricia said, and it was the first of many issues they would face.

But, unlike most couples, their "baby" would be a 5-pound sack of flour.

Patricia, a junior, and Antwon, a senior, aren't really a couple but are high school classmates who took part in a monthlong marriage-simulation project in their elective psychology class at Oakland Mills High School in Howard County.

"Married" as teen-agers, students in two upper-level psychology classes learned some lessons of married life without actually taking the plunge. The goal is to teach students that there's more to marriage than it may seem.

"It's not all about Prince Charming arriving on a white charger," said psychology teacher Lorna Klingner, who has been running the simulations for 19 years. "There can be a lot of work and a lot of stressful situations involved in all the issues that come up in a lifetime together."

The idea for the marriage project began two decades ago with Connie Evans, a psychology teacher at Howard High School.

"At the time, the divorce rate was soaring," Evans said. "According to the data I have, the divorce rate peaked in 1981, but 60 percent of all first marriages still end in divorce today."

Evans thought that if people were aware of the problems they might face in married life, and learned how to discuss them, more marriages would succeed.

"From what I could see, there wasn't any preparation for getting married," she said. "If you were pregnant, there were childbirth classes, then books about child rearing. But nothing about the issues married couples face."

It was important to present situations to students that might cause conflicts in married life, said Evans, who wrote the original marriage-simulation project. The program is popular, growing by word-of-mouth among students, and is used by at least seven schools, said Mark Stout, social studies supervisor for the Howard County Board of Education.

Nationally, an estimated 2,000 schools now offer formal instruction on marriage and relationship skills and "this number is growing," according to a recent report by New York's Institute for American Values, a marriage advocacy group. Florida requires "marriage and relationship skills" education for all high school students. And the Bush administration, which is trying to encourage marriage among the poor, wants to give states money to promote and maintain marriage through classes and counseling.

As in real life, Patricia and Antwon's simulated marriage began with a ceremony, appropriately on Valentine's Day. They were among 30 "couples" at Oakland Mills participating in the project.

Nervous "grooms" straightened their ties, and blushing "brides" fixed their makeup before joining hands and promising to "work together and compromise until we are parted at the end of this project."

And as in life, the effort didn't end with the last notes of the bridal recessional. After the ceremony and reception, the real work began.

Students were required to work together to "find jobs" in entry-level positions that interested them. They needed to find housing in neighborhoods where they would want to live and then furnish their homes - within or close to their budget. Of course, the students did not actually sign leases or buy furniture, but they had to acquire rental agreements and window-shop, not simply look through catalogs.

"For many, this is their first pass through some of life's realities," Klingner said.

As if that weren't enough, then came the "babies." About one week into the project, all couples were assigned "babies." The number and sexes were selected at random, with one member of the couple choosing from a hat a slip of paper that would decide their future.

Patricia and Antwon became "parents" of a baby girl after buying their 5-pound sack of flour.

Patricia spent hours, she said, turning her flour sack into her own. She applied duct tape and used stockings for arms, legs and a head. She made the hair and ironed on a face. She dressed it in clothes that an aunt provided.

Some students went further and for extra credit went to school "pregnant" for two days. Kate Finnegan, a senior, found the pregnancy hard on her back because the weight of the bicycle helmet she wore under her sweatshirt pulled her forward.

She also said it was a bit embarrassing to be in her "condition."

"Some people thought I was really pregnant," she said. "It was weird."

After the "birth" of their children, Patricia, Antwon, Kate and their classmates were required to care for the infants as if they were real.

"Some students actually asked me if they had to bring their babies to school on the days they don't have this class," Klingner said. "As in life, the babies are not something you can leave at home in the closet."

So students carried their babies to and from school. If there was an activity their babies could not attend, they had to provide "child care" and budget for it.

"They can't assume grandma will watch their child," Klingner said. "She's finally free of her child-rearing responsibilities."

For Antwon and Patricia, who have been good friends for three years, the lessons started early in the project. Not only did they differ on what to name the "baby," they also had disagreed on what Patricia would do after the baby was born.

Antwon, who hopes to be a police officer, found a "job" as a security guard for $25,000 a year. He thought Patricia would go to work after "Alyssa Marie" arrived. But she had plans of her own.

"He's crazy if he thinks I'm going to work," Patricia said on their wedding day. "I don't want to miss any of those precious first moments. He's going to have to make more money."

So after a couple of days of discussion, they decided Antwon would get a "job" as a police officer, and Patricia would stay home with the baby for a few months. Then she would work part time to share in the expenses, Antwon said.

As for shopping for furniture and baby needs, Antwon said he let Patricia take care of that.

"I knew I wouldn't be able to win, and she would get what she wanted, so I just let her go," he said.

And, of course, the baby.

"The baby felt like a lot of responsibility because I couldn't put it down," Antwon said. "But it was a good feeling. I liked being a father."

Patricia did take care of the baby after school, more than Antwon did, he said.

"It just worked out that way," he said. "I have a job and a lot of things to do. But I took the baby on Thursdays and Fridays."

The couple would exchange the baby at school, seeking each other out during the day to swap duties.

Kate, the oldest of six children, said carrying her baby made her realize how much work being a mother can be.

"I've always been around babies. I even thought I would want to have one pretty young," she said. "But this made me see some of what my parents go through toting us around all the time. It made me see there are things they don't get to do because they are responsible for us."

Just before the school's spring break, the unions were dissolved as promised.

"I hope the students got a more realistic understanding of married life," Klingner said. "It's usually a lot more than they expected."

For Patricia and Antwon, it was an eye-opening experience.

"I have never worked this hard in my life," Patricia said. "I never knew how expensive everything is, especially a baby. I thought I wanted kids pretty young, [but] I never really thought about the expense. I thought everything just fell into place.

"I also didn't realize what it's like to be responsible for another person," added Patricia, who baby-sits often and works at a creative play center for children. "I've never had to be responsible for someone else."

As far as working out issues within a relationship, Patricia said she understands how difficult it can be to consult someone on important decisions.

Antwon agreed that marriage and child rearing can be difficult. "I thought I would get married young," he said. "But now I see that I want to have my foot into the world. I want to make sure I have all I need emotionally and financially before I take that step."

But it wasn't only marriage's hardships that the students took away from the project.

"I learned it's important to compromise and be a team player," Antwon said. "And it's important to really listen. But something nice about marriage is you always have a partner. You never have to do something alone. It felt good to 'come home' to one person, and be able to tell her all my problems and goals. I really felt like I could tell her anything."

Learning to communicate is essential, said Rona Levi, a licensed clinical social worker at Family and Children's Services at the Family Life Center in Columbia.

"Finances, day care, job stress - these are all very real issues," Levi said. "But the major underlying issue is how people communicate through these decisions."

Not all couples going through the project have happy endings, however. Some students who are dating choose to do the project together, then decide to break up, Klingner said.

That's what happened to Scott Fraser, a junior who took part in the project with his girlfriend of one year.

"The project really showed me an example of what marriage would be like," said Scott, who, even beforehand, thought marriage looked difficult.

"This project showed us that we shouldn't have been together," he said. "We got to see things from the inside. It showed us how much work goes into a relationship. We wanted to focus on more important things like school and work."

Klingner said she just wants students "to get an inkling of what marriage takes. It's not something they should jump into lightly."

And that lesson they learned.

"I still want to get married one day," Patricia said. "I think it'll just be a little later than I thought."

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